Friday, December 20, 2013

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Autism-Friendly Santa, a tradition worth keeping.
If you've read my posts around the holidays you've probably seen a recurring theme of "create new traditions".  It's essentially the idea that as parents we have the power to create our own traditions for our children that make their holidays magical.  They may not be the traditions that we grew up with, and that's hard, but ultimately we want our kids to look back and remember how amazing the holidays were for them, not for us.  I don't think I'm alone in this.  Having an autistic child thrown into the mix sometimes means that big divergences from past traditions are required.  Things that were "fun" or "nostalgic" for us might be "stressful" or even "traumatic".  So you make changes to traditions and they become new traditions, and your new traditions are inclusive of everyone in the family, and you create magical memories for all, the end.  Or at least that's the idea.  

I moved to Pittsburgh in 1994.  I met my future wife at an apartment complex Christmas mixer the second week I moved here, and was invited to a Christmas party at her apartment the next week because of my immense personal charm (that's not a euphemism).  That year was the first Christmas I ever spent apart from my parents.  It was the first of many new traditions I would adopt moving forward. 

After that first year one of the traditions my girlfriend and I (yes, spoiler alert, I started dating that very same girl again based on my immense personal charm (that's not a euphemism) less than a year later) adopted was the Murphy Party.  I'm sorry...this is the Murphy 'Christmas Party', which is not to be confused with the Murphy 'Pool Party' (held in the Summer) or the Murphy 'Superbowl Party' (held in February).  After that first year we dressed in our finery and attended the party held at the lovely home of the charming couple whose children were my wife's childhood friends and who welcomed me lovingly into their midst.

Holiday calendars fill up quickly every year, but our schedules always hold certain placeholders determined months in advance: my company Christmas party, her company Christmas party, and the Murphy party. 

Every year their friends fill their house, three generations, then four, each new year ushering in joyful additions and yes, sometimes too, heartbreaking losses so dear I can't touch them even so many years since.  The children grew from young adults to middle aged in front of our eyes while we stared dumbly at our unchanging reflections in the mirrors at home that night and wondered how we alone escaped the ravages of time, even as they went home and stared in their mirrors and wondered the same of themselves. 

The children my wife grew up with have now had children of their own, and we're seeing them grow up together in the shutterstop motion of the Murphy Party, each new yearly click of the shutter an explosion of growth and development that staggers our minds and causes us all to exclaim in a way we SWORE. TO. GOD. we would never..."They're growing up so fast!" (at least nobody pinches their cheeks...yet)

And listen...this Murphy's special.  I'd call it a "Pittsburgh" thing, but I don't know Pittsburgh things, I'm a Montana boy.  It's more specific than that.  It's not a "Murphy Thing" either, per se, because it's common among everyone on the invitation list, this inclusion of all, this breaking of circled hands in order to admit still another to their familial ring.  It's a common theme among a group of good people, of the best people, but it is best illustrated perhaps by the most regular and predictable of the get-togethers among that group of people, "The Murphy Party".

When my sister moved to Pittsburgh she was included.  When my parents moved to Pittsburgh, they were included.  And it was all done as simply as breaking hands, shuffling to the side, admitting new people to the circle, and then clasping hands again.  Think of the Whos down in Whoville clasping hands and singing "davu doray" but much ...much drunker.

So the tradition begins like this:  We dress up, not "too" fancy, this is Pittsburgh, after all, we don't put on airs, Steelers and/or Penguins attire is considered dressy enough, but a Santa hat is recommended in that case.  We drive to the South Hills.  This is the hardest part of the tradition, since the street map of the South Hills was done long ago by an Italian pasta maker who partially cooked spaghetti, threw it into a ceiling fan and confidently announced wherever a noodle landed, "Dere you build-a de road!" This makes navigation problematic.  But many trips mean we have become infinitely familiar with the criss-crossing spaghetti noodles specifically designed to get us to the Murphy House.

We arrive and are greeted at the door by whoever happens to be nearest.  We remark with horror at how beautifully the living room is decorated and immediately begin fortifying our defenses lest Lily make a bee-line for the most breakable or most expensive of the decorations (this fear ends as soon as we leave the house hours later).  We remove our coats and take them upstairs to the spare bedroom.  We exchange greetings with the main floor people.  These people hover around the alcohol and cookies.  It is here where we are offered our first drinks.  We migrate down one flight of stairs.  We exchange greetings with the people in the family room.  These people hover around the christmas tree, and the hors d'oeuvres, listening to Christmas music and gossiping over egg nog as they deftly defend the children from the fire...or the fire from the children.  We migrate down another flight of stairs through the office where the children gather around the Wii or Playstation, into the rec room, where the beer crowd, a louder version of the family room group animatedly discuss the woeful Steeler offensive line over still more hors d'oeuvres, and Rolling Rock, or Corona.

And the overarching theme is Christmas and family and friends, food and drink, generosity and all the hugs, hugs, hugs, hugs.  And we separate as a family then, Emma naturally sliding in beside the other children, holding court in her fashion, a loud voice, a joke teller and natural clown, it is fun to see her in this element, among a group of kids her age, slipping seamlessly back into stride alongside her peers, joking and mocking, and being mocked in turn.  We leave her to her own devices and take turns with Lily moving between the groups, but settling for the most part with the calmer family room crowd, keeping Lily happy, taking turns escaping for drinks or food until at last the various families produce (amazingly) Christmas presents for all the children.  And then the families with smaller children begin to slowly slide away, thinning the herd in a sort of reverse process...hugging the huggers again this time in parting, moving from the rec room to the office, collecting stray children, scolding them into thank yous where necessary, up the stairs to the family room, another flight to the living room and kitchen, collecting the coats, starting the car, and hugging the last few stragglers before driving home on the spaghetti noodle express to the more orderly understandable North Hills of Pittsburgh where we make our home.

It's a great group of people.  It is a tradition that Emma has adopted as firmly as any in our home.  To consider not attending the Murphy Party is like considering not having Christmas Eve dinner at our house.  It is more than is a requirement.

And yet...for the fourth year in a row, the entire family will almost certainly not be attending the Murphy Party.  Little Lily is sick.  This is the third straight year that she's gotten sick before the Murphy Party.  Prior to that there was a snowstorm that stopped any of us from going.  It has, of late, been more of a tradition not to attend the Murphy Party than to attend it.  But...we will not let our partial absence become the new tradition.  This is not a tradition we're creating. 
Lily as of this very minute...ish

The Murphy Party tradition has been one that already had all the built in adaptations required to generate warm nostalgic memories in our children's (future) heads.  Love/family/inclusion/understanding...some traditions are worth keeping. 


  1. You should be reading these on radio. Hmmm, maybe we need a station/podcast thing for Happy Magic......97.3 The Spectrum? hmmmmmmm? Now, I am tired from all the possibilities. Merry Christmas and I hope Lily feels better soon.

    1. Can you guys write book? Please, please, plllllllleeeeeeeeaaaaassssssseeeeeee?!?!?!

    2. Who paid you to say that? If it was my wife she KNOWS we don't have the money...

  2. Oh noooooo! Poor sweet girl. Sick is no bueno! I'm so sorry you'll miss the Murphy party; it sounds like an awesome thing.

    1. With any luck she'll sleep and I'll drink and watch Battlestar Galactica or something.

  3. Rats! that is NOT where I saw that fabulous story going!

  4. Aw, poor Lily. I love your description of the Murphy party; it sounds exactly like the parties my grandmother used to throw on Christmas Eve at her house when I was growing up. I loved those so much. Once she passed away, they stopped happening, and I miss them. All of us, the whole extended family (plus anyone else we brought along) under one roof, happy and loud and joyous...some of the best memories of my childhood.

    Feel better soon, Lily!

  5. I'm sorry Lily is missing out this Christmas. The same thing used to happen with my brother -- it was an ongoing family joke? Holiday? Yup. And David will be getting sick in 3.... 2.... 1....

    He did eventually grow out of it and I hope Lily will too. Hope she's felling better before the man in red arrives!

  6. You write with such love of some truly wonderful folks. Oh, ya gone & made me cry. So far from my own family, but Miss E (my little aspiegirl) & I will be spending xmas afternoon at the London equivalent of your Murphy house. Feel better, little Lily - sending super strength healing vibes from across the big pond.